The cat is out of the bag. The Missionaries of Jesus, a congregation of Catholic nuns, have gone public with allegations that their bishop subjected some of them to sexual harassment and abuse. “More than 70 days have passed since the nun filed a police complaint [alleging rape] against the bishop,” said one nun as she staged a protest with members of her congregation and several activists in Kerala’s Kochi city on Saturday. “We have given clinching evidence also. It seems police are reluctant to take action due to pressure. Church and police both let us down. Now, we pin our hopes on the judiciary.”

The fellow nun she referred to had on June 27 lodged a police complaint against Franco Mulakkal, the bishop of of Jalandhar, accusing him of raping her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. The Missionaries of Jesus congregation is based in Jalandhar and runs two convents in Kerala. The alleged abuse took place in one of the convents in Kerala. The bishop has denied the charge and claimed his accuser is taking revenge against him for ordering an inquiry into a complaint that she was in a relationship with a married man. On September 7, a media report said three more nuns had accused the bishop of inappropriate behaviour.

Before going to the police, the nun tried to get justice from the Church. But every bishop – the highest official in a church territory called a diocese – she approached turned a deaf ear to her appeal for justice.

In India, patriarchy and hierarchy, coupled with sexually repressive culture, have created a state where abuse thrives and victims are silenced. Kerala MLA PC George’s misogynistic remark on Saturday is evidence of this culture. He said about the nun, “There is no doubt she is a prostitute, for 12 times she enjoyed sex with the bishop and on the 13th time decided to call it rape.”

Strongly rooted in Indian culture, the Catholic Church in India has kept the lid down tightly on the sexual abuse of nuns, not realising that in the 21st century, electronic means of communication allow the voiceless to express themselves.

Fertile ground for abuse

Catholic nuns take a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, to devote their lives to serving god in various ministries such as education, health and pastoral work in the communities. There are several congregations of nuns. Most of them were founded centuries ago in Europe (some congregations still wear the outdated European dress called a habit) and sent members to India as missionaries. Indian nuns are socialised into a culture of subservience to men. This creates fertile ground for their exploitation and abuse in many ways.

Many congregations, like the Missionaries of Jesus in Jalandhar, were founded by a bishop to serve in his diocese. The bishop gives them funds to operate. They, in turn, provide the diocese with free professional service as teachers, principals, supervisors, household staff and diocesan office administrative staff. Therefore, it is easy for a bishop to exploit and harass the nuns of a diocesan congregation.

International congregations of nuns are also often invited by bishops to serve in their dioceses. They are accountable to the bishop, who has the power to welcome them or ask them to pack up and move. Most bishops almost never use the latter power as the nuns usually serve the priests and bishops respectfully and unstintingly. They do their best not to incur the bishop’s displeasure, as they could suffer consequences. But there comes a time when enough is enough.

The nun in Kerala lodged a complaint of rape against Jalandhar bishop Franco Mulakkal in July. (Credit: Shammi Mehra / AFP)

Spiritual guide as abuser

Why did the nun in Kerala endure sexual abuse over a period of time without speaking up? The answer lies in the power equation between her and the bishop. He is her spiritual guide and patron, and the person who holds the purse strings. In comparison, she is equivalent to an employee at the mercy of the power he wields. She is a vulnerable and potential victim of abuse. For this very reason, the government has brought the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

Considering the position of nuns, especially those in a diocesan congregation, it is not easy for them to come out and speak against their bishop, notwithstanding the law that supports victims. For a nun to process the experience within the context of her commitment to her faith, her vows and her patriarchal conditioning, it can be quite traumatic. The bishop is a man who also takes the vow of celibacy and obedience to the pope. He is the religious head in a diocese. He commands great respect in his diocese and beyond. When a bishop preys upon a nun directly under him, using whatever power he commands, it can be very difficult to process the abuse.

Several survivors of abuse by priests, both nuns and ordinary women, have spoken of how the abuser misuses his position as a spiritual guide and religious teacher to prey on vulnerable women. It is traumatic when your spiritual guide becomes your abuser. You are left confused. The suppression of sexual expression in Indian culture and that of the Church compounds the matter. When everything to do with sex is a sin except when it is for procreation, it takes time for a victim to process that her spiritual guide is sexually abusing her.

Sadly, the Catholic Church in India has dragged its feet in dealing with the reality of abuse among the ranks of its ordained men. The first reaction is denial, followed by victim-blaming and shaming.

Only when the crucible of shame boils over – like it did in the United States, where investigations by civil agencies pulled out thousands of cases of abuse over decades – has the Church admitted culpability

Can the Church in India learn from the mistakes of the United States and other countries? The nuns want justice, which is the hallmark of Christ’s teachings. The Church, as the visible sign of Christ in the world, should be the first to demonstrate justice.

Virginia Saldanha is former Executive Secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India Commission for Women and Federation of the Asian Bishops’ Conferences Office of Laity, Family and Women; and member of the Indian Christian Women’s Movement and Indian Women Theologians’ Forum.